Civilizational Divides and Regional Confrontations – 4

Reading Kazuhiko Togo’s powerful piece on the dilemmas of Japan, one feels in a time warp. The echo of the 19th century’s choice of modernization with the adoption of Western values and rules that resulted from the Meiji Restoration, and the strategic realism of an embattled 20th century when alliance reversals and conflict reigned, dominate his approach. Strikingly, Japan’s own role in supporting a civilian and legal order, the search for comprehensive security over hard power, its aspirational goals to supersede the postwar and Cold War era, are less present in his essay: a sign of the times, since Togo points out that Japan’s existential priority today is to deal with a rising and somewhat unpredictable China. In many ways, Japan’s aspirations have been frustrated: its financial support of the United Nations has not gained a permanent seat at the Security Council; its advanced environmental and climate targets (similar to Europe’s) were not adopted at the 2009 Copenhagen conference; its move in 1997-1998 towards Asian regional financial institutions was not received much more warmly by the West than by China. This is indeed a realist age.

Yet civilization matters, first of all because it can constrain the behavior of competing powers, and because it shapes the views of political leaders as well as public opinion. In this context, the persistence of peaceful or even pacifist views among Japanese citizens, even when they turn to pessimism as they have done towards the future with China, with only razor-thin majorities supporting on rare occasions some of Japan’s international engagements over, for example, successive Gulf Wars, testify to an absolute break with Japan’s history. The existence of active nationalist minorities and militants, the intention by political figures such as Abe Shinzo to reconnect with Japan’s heritage for reasons of pride should be understood—and relativized—from this overall perspective. An attempt to impose European history and the European narrative for reconciliation also falls short. Christian civilization rests on the notion of guilt, whether individual or collective. Buddhism stresses cleansing of the soul and repair—whether spiritual or material. Apologies and joint writing of history are seldom attempted in Asia—whether in the domestic or historical context.

This being said, can we compare Europe and Japan’s civilizational approaches to China and Russia? The only common perspective has not really been stressed by Togo. Europe and Japan have both sought for the last generation to create a model of multilateral governance resting on cooperation over conflict, soft power over military deployments, legal rule and norms. The perspective has been much deeper with the construction of the EU, itself an experiment in post-national governance, acting like a magnet that has attracted 28 countries—and quite a few candidates. None of this ever superseded the alliance with the United States (and part of the success and the limit to common European defense is that it brings together Western allies and countries that are technically neutral). Since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the temptation to harvest the “dividends of peace” has led to a dangerous decline of defense spending: today, the European country with the highest ratio of defense spending to GDP is Greece, the hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis. The strongest European economy, Germany, only spends 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense. It is only in 2014 that the need for strong defense, a public debate on making outside intervention legally less difficult (over the issue of aid to the Kurds against the ISIL terrorist organization), has happened in Germany. But countries such as France and the United Kingdom, traditionally prone to outside intervention, have also seen their defense spending decline to well under 2 percent of GDP. Thus, the balance of European external action—between hard deterrence and soft power or influence—is broken today by a combination of spending decline and rising conflicts.

That reality underlies the debate around Ukraine. The United States can afford a choice whether to use military means to prevent outright aggression by Russia against Ukraine. Europe cannot have this debate, because it does not have the required military means to prevail against Russia in a land conflict at Russia’s borders. This is probably reason enough not to provide heavy weaponry to Ukraine—if this resulted in a military escalation, Europe would not be able to follow through. Of course, this is largely due to the dispersion of Europe’s defense effort—28 countries and also some huge maritime or polar territories, out-of-area missions in Africa, the Near East, and South Asia. Thus, Japan’s limited 1 percent of GDP effort remains probably a more effective deterrent to conflict in the East China Sea, while Europe’s armies are currently no deterrent in the plains of Ukraine. It is in political terms and in anticipation of a future when China will be militarily more powerful that Japan needs the compact with the United States. For Europe, the ability, even with some delay and considerable debate, to implement sanctions after Crimea and to upgrade these after Russia has increased its pressure on Donbass, is already an achievement. The downside is that Russia knows that effort, however effective on the Russian economy, could not be escalated into a defense undertaking under prevailing conditions. Sanctions undermine interdependent prosperity; they do not deter conflict by themselves. Thus, 25 years after the Cold War ended, the EU still depends on the United States to uphold the strategic balance in Eastern Europe, and that is a trait shared with Japan.

Does Europe’s civilizational outlook suggest different solutions? On Russia, Europe is still deeply divided, and the division runs through almost all political forces and countries, with the possible exception of Poland and the Baltic states (and even these have minorities with their own views). But it is not a feeling of kinship with Slavophile rejection of the West. Russia has been sought as a counterweight inside Europe. France and Russia became military allies in 1904 until 1917 to repeal Germany’s Triple Alliance. De Gaulle eulogized the Soviet Union and united with the French Communists during World War II. Germany, after the Brest-Litovsk peace of 1917, used the young Soviet Union as a resource for clandestine remilitarization in the 1920s.1 How did former Titoist Yugoslavia, once a stronghold of independence from Moscow, become a stalwart supporter of Russia after shrinking to present-day Serbia? Of course, it was a desperate attempt to balance the centrifugal forces pulling apart the former federation. And the attractiveness of a Russian matrix, when it exists, is not that of a civilizational cradle—in part because so many of Russia’s genius writers, musicians, and artists are part and parcel of European culture. But just as importantly, because Russia seems to provide to some an authoritarian respite against the social and cultural effects of globalization. European communists were not Slavophiles or anti-Western, but they believed mistakenly that Soviet communism was ushering in a progressive paradise. Or at any rate that it was the enemy of their own enemy: in 1944, Sicilian peasants sang threateningly to their landlords “Venga il baffone!” (the man with a moustache is coming), by which they meant that Stalin would avenge them. This reasoning—the enemy of my enemy has to be my friend—is still important today. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a former ultra-rightist now hailing the Putin model, and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko are, first of all, in a fight against modern representative democracy. In France, the populist National Front is tempted with reaching for support from Putin that mirrors the strategy of the old French Communist Party of the 1950s. No wonder, since it rejects European integration and is also strongly anti-American and anti-globalist. Putin’s ode to armed nationalism—and China’s brand of authoritarian state capitalism—are attractive ideological models to undercut market democracy.

To go any further—and to generalize from these fringe forces—would be a total misrepresentation of European sentiment. The EU, as Togo suggests, may have been complacent about Ukraine, underestimating both the difficulties of a failed economy and the feeling of insecurity in Moscow. The EU has often considered its extension as a natural project, justified by its model and by the provision of assistance, and has indeed often disregarded Russia’s latent nationalism. Visiting St. Petersburg in 1991—when Vladimir Putin was still vice-mayor there—, this writer distinctly remembers the anxiety of local academics, who wondered whether Europe was going to “colonize Russia.” That was a total anachronism, but Putin has steadily built on this fear, legitimizing his rule while letting a tiny minority harvest the wealth from Russia’s natural resources. And while Russian hot money has flowed out to London and the Côte d’Azur, European loans and investment have flocked to Russia. Europe has not been anti-Russian, but Putin has seen fit to build up an image of embattled Russia in order to perpetuate his hold on public opinion. Thus for most Europeans, the Europeanization of Russia itself—albeit with no clear roadmap and the handicap of a too rigid and demanding EU framework2—has always been the preferred option. How to recreate this avenue, from the present situation, which is largely the result of Putin’s choice, is, of course, another difficult question. It is compounded by Europe’s relative economic slump—although Northern and Eastern Europe neighboring Russia are actually more dynamic. In its basic approach to Russia, Europe does not differ so much from the thinking that Togo describes for Japan. Yet how, one may ask, could it possibly be implemented with a leader who has repeatedly dissembled in his actions in the past year, and who has even advocated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a model for the 21st century?

By comparison, European attitudes to China are much less sensitive. Regard for China’s economic achievements does not differ much from the same sentiment towards previous East Asian miracles. Reservations regarding unfair competition and social dumping are also in a continuum with previous criticism of Japan and Korea in their era of supercharged growth. The occasional admiration for Chinese governance is not so much that for a model of Oriental despotism as it is an echo of Europe’s own benevolent despotism—from Catherine II (so European that she corresponded with Voltaire) to Wilhelm II and Napoleon III. This is not to say that China’s use of force is seen benignly. Both the “punishment” of Vietnam in 1979, and the missile crisis across the Taiwan Strait in 1996 have been condemned by Europeans; their restraint on present-day maritime issues is not so much due to economic ties with China as to the low intensity of the conflict and the fact that it is focused on uninhabited areas.

A military and diplomatic alliance between China and Russia, beyond the current ability to jointly say “no” at the United Nations, a capacity that is shared with BRICS in other forums, would certainly elicit a stronger response. Yet one feels that Russia, for all the blustering rhetoric and domestic politics, is more dependent on Europe than its leaders admit. And China cultivates strategic ambiguity, alternating, as it does presently, phases of detente with tests of will towards its partners.


1. A marvelous novel has partly fictionalized this : Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Hammerstein oder Der Eigensinn, Berlin, Suhrkamp, 2010 (The Silences of Hammerstei : a German Story ( Seagull, 2010).

2. An example is the incompatibility that has often been assumed between the EU and Russia’s Eurasian Union. Why deny Russia a common commercial space with other economies ? Why not push for an open regionalism that would also benefit Russia in relations with the EU?